In Conversation With: Anstey Harris

What do your days look like at the moment (during lockdown)?

Like everybody, I’m seeking solace in baking! Long-lost cake and bread skills are taking up much of my valuable time so that, in between teaching and face-timing my grandchildren, I never seem to have a minute.

Are you finding lockdown is stifling your creativity or stimulating it?

In most senses lockdown has absolutely killed my creativity. I think it’s because I’m a very ordered and disciplined person who never gets behind on deadlines or responsibilities and juggling all the balls at once during the absolute mind fug of lockdown is difficult. I locked down 9 days earlier than the government requirement so I’m well into week five and just, for the first time, starting to feel able to make things happen in terms of my book three.

The Truths and Triumphs of Grace Atherton has been so popular, did you find it daunting to follow up?

It is always difficult to write a second novel, but when your first one has been an international bestseller is doubly hard! I had to keep remembering that The Truths and Triumphs of Grace Atherton hadn’t always been there, that it too had once just been a few words, and then a few chapters. 

Was there anything that came as a surprise while writing Where We Belong?

That I like it so much! I never expected to be as convinced by the characters or the story. Now it’s hard to decide which book I like best. I think it’s like children: you love them equally even though they’re very different.

Did you always know you wanted to be a writer or was it something that emerged over time?

I’ve been writing since I very first learnt how, and telling fibs/stories before that. I’ve never wanted to do anything else.

You also teach creative writing, what is the most common mistake beginners should avoid. Any advice to those who want to take up writing at the moment?

The most common mistake for beginners is that they don’t learn how to take criticism. You need other people to help you grow and their opinions (especially those in a position of professional authority) are there to help you realise your own shortcomings and work on them. EVERY successful writer/artist/dancer/actor/musician etc has done this.

Do you find it difficult to leave a character once you've finished writing their story, and is it tempting to protect them from harm's way?

In both Where We Belong and The Truths and Triumphs of Grace Atherton, I have left my characters in a position that I’m happy for them to move on from in their own way, to take control of their own lives. I think it’s really important to leave some space for the reader’s thinking in a novel: the characters belong to them too. I do worry sometimes that I’m too cruel to my characters - I wonder if I should be easier on them.

Do you put any hidden easter eggs into your books for keen-eyed readers to discover?

Absolutely always. But it would be wrong to point out what they are. 

Whose work makes you want to be a better writer?

So many people, for so many reasons. There are some people I admire for their writing, some for their stories and plots, and some for their sheer output and hard work. Among my favourite books to read, and things I read when I want to stimulate my own writing are Little Hands Clapping by Dan Rohdes, Ferney by James Long, Every Last One by Anna Quindlen, and - very old school - The Midwich Cuckoos by John Wynham.

Do you have any rituals or routines that you use to making writing any easier?

I walk a lot, that helps. And I don’t push myself into writing if I’m not ready. It’s important to remember that stories and characters need time to percolate: demanding that they appear on the first day you summon them won’t help you, the characters or, eventually, the reader!

Can you recommend some books or reading that might be a comfort or interest to people right now?

I have been rereading pandemic novels, which might not suit everyone… Station 11 by Emily St John Mandel is an absolute cracker - about a post-apocalyptic travelling Shakespeare company. The Road by Cormac McCarthy is a brilling, ground-breaking, novel in which he never specifies exactly what has brought mankind to its knees, just that everything is different. The Rapture by Liz Jensen is another one I’ve enjoyed over the years but haven’t started rereading yet.

What are you looking forward to doing most when the lockdown is over?

Without doubt, seeing my grandchildren. 

We know you love to support Deal businesses, what are some of your favourites you think more people should know about?

I do love supporting Deal businesses! We are so lucky here to have such choices, during this pandemic time so many local businesses are carrying on and keeping us all afloat - it’s a great time to buy local. We’ve had all sorts of dried goods (and flour!) and cleaning products from Your Little Green Shop, fish from Jenkins, vegetables from Bartlett and White, cheese from Mike on the market - all without leaving the house. Deal Ink and Toner bail me out regularly, pandemic or not, as do Real Deal Roasters (whose coffee fuels all my writing!). 

Is there anything else you’d like to let people know about?

My new book comes out on May 14th, it’s available for pre-order from Amazon, Kobo, Waterstones and any other book supplier. I’d be so grateful for every pre-order or, once it comes out, download/hard copy sale. This poor book doesn’t get a launch or railway posters but it’s a great uplifting read that, I hope, will make you remember the good times and that they will be here again.

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